Africa Brief: Salafist-Jihadist groups could exploit local grievances to expand into the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa
[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader’s awareness.]
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Takeaway key: Salafi-jihadi groups are beginning to step up attacks in the northern border regions of several Gulf of Guinea states. These attacks may indicate that al-Qaeda-linked militants intend to expand their territorial insurgency into these countries, continuing a multi-year expansion south into West Africa.
Figure 1. The Salafist-Jihadist movement in Africa: May 2022
Source: Kathryn Tyson.
Salafist-jihadist militants carried out the second attack targeting security forces in northern Togo since November 2021. Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in the Sahel, Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimeen (JNIM), likely carried out both attacks. Around 60 activists briefly*outmoded a Togolese base at Kpinkankandi in northern Togo on May 10 and 11, killing eight Togolese soldiers and wounding 13 others. Probable JNIM militants first *offensive a Togolese military post in Kpendjal prefecture, northern Togo, in November 2021.
Salafist-jihadist groups previously used Benin and Togo for supplies, but could now carry out offensive attacks. JNIM and other Salafist-Jihadist groups have been using border regions of the Gulf of Guinea countries, especially Benin, Ghana and Togo, to stock up on motorcycles, basic necessities, weapons and money in recent years, especially in capitalizing on trafficking and criminal networks. JNIM and the Islamic State’s Sahel Province control local supply lines from shrines in the W-Arly-Pendjari Park Complex straddling the Burkinabe-Beninese-Nigerien border. The freedom of movement of Salafist-jihadist militants in parts of Burkina Faso allows them to make repeated incursions into neighboring Gulf of Guinea states and escape pressure from security forces on either side of the border.
JNIM’s activities in Benin and Togo in 2021 and 2022 indicate that the group is to attempt to capitalize on local grievances to recruit and is now more willing to directly challenge local security forces. JNIM militants probably started using roadside improvised explosive devices and small arms target Beninese security forces December 2021. These attacks may be responses to increased efforts by security forces to target contraband and disrupt JNIM activities. Benin faces the same violence between farmers and herders who has leads the expansion of Salafist-Jihadist groups elsewhere in the Sahel, creating a risk of radicalization, particularly if Salafist-Jihadist groups can make common cause with local interest groups against the state and security forces. Beninese and Togolese security forces have relatively positive results reports with the local population, however providing some insulation against this risk. Beninese security forces regularly Stop perpetrators of communal violence targeting pastoral communities, demonstrating their ability to protect residents.
Côte d’Ivoire has not seen a recent shift in Salafi-jihadi activity but faces greater risk due to popular grievances and poor relations between local people and the state. The JNIM has always targeted Côte d’Ivoire as revenge for Ivorian participation in joint counter-terrorism operations in other countries in the Sahel. JNIM conducted a major attack on a hotel in the Ivorian capital Abidjan in 2016. JNIM target Ivorian security forces in northern Côte d’Ivoire in 2021 and 2022, sometimes in retaliation for counterterrorism operations. A JNIM sub-group operates in the Ivorian–Burkinabe border region, where the Burkinabe-Ivorian union operations so far unable to dislodge it. The JNIM may also be able to expand its presence by recruiting among disaffected Ivorians who are stigmatized by other communities and the security forces. Community relations in northern Côte d’Ivoire are tense and rooted in the conflict between farmers and herders. These grievances, including the state’s mismanagement of its response, create an opportunity for JNIM to recruit among Ivorian herders. Security forces and sedentary farmers sometimes arrest Fulani civilians indifferentlystigmatizing them and assimilate pastoral communities with criminal activities and jihadist groups.
Figure 2. Zones of Salafist-Jihadist activity in the coastal states of the Gulf of Guinea
Source: American Enterprise Institute Critical Threat Project.
JNIM has recruited at least a few Ghanaians and is likely transiting personnel through Ghana. Ghana is at high risk of recruitment by JNIM of Ghanaians from nomadic Fulani communities, who often struggle to to prove their citizenship in Ghana. Inter-community conflict between farmers and herders local grievances and banditry is already rampant in northern Ghana. Ghanaian security forces conducted many security operations in northern Ghana aimed at stemming violence and banditry. A Ghanaian Fulani A JNIM member carried out a suicide bombing attack on a French military base in Gossi, Mali in June 2021. There has so far been no confirmed JNIM activity in Ghana.
JNIM’s increasing freedom of movement in Mali increases its ability to operate in other West African coastal states. The JNIM is likely smuggling goods and raising funds in the Senegal-Malian border region. JNIM may seek access to illicit money flows from gold mines Senegal and western Mali Kayes region. Senegalese Security Forces*disassembled a JNIM cell in Senegal in January 2021. JNIM is also contesting areas in the northeast of the Kayes region, where JNIM has previously led *attacks near the Senegalese and Mauritanian borders.
JNIM may also pose a growing threat to Guinea. Salafist-jihadist groups have not yet attacked in Guinea, but militants have operated in the country. Guinean security forces have stopped individuals affiliated with Al-Qaeda, including a U.S. Designate*terrorist in 2016. JNIM is rebuilding its presence in the Sikasso region of southern Mali, bordering Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire and Guinea. A JNIM brigade formerly active in Sikasso could have resumed activity during the last years.
Salafist-jihadist activity is likely to remain limited in the northern border areas of the Gulf of Guinea states unless local governance conditions deteriorate significantly. The JNIM and its ilk have grown in the Sahel in areas already affected by poor governance and inter-communal conflict. Salafist-jihadist militants do not have the same degree of influence and force projection in West African coastal states and will face demographic limits to any potential insurgency. However, they could become more entrenched in the worst case of civil war or societal breakdown in a risky border region. Coastal states and their international donors should prioritize governance-strengthening approaches to suppress opportunities for Salafist-Jihadist groups to recruit and operate among aggrieved populations. One too securitized A policy that further demonizes entire communities risks forcing vulnerable groups to associate with Salafist-Jihadist groups for their survival.
On their current trajectory, Salafist-Jihadist groups have significant opportunities to expand their influence and activities in West African coastal states. Security in Mali and Burkina Faso will likely continue to deteriorate, providing militants with safe havens from which to project their force on West African coastlines and gradually increase their grip on local communities. Attacks in the northern regions of the Gulf of Guinea states may also seek to deter them from participating in joint counterterrorism operations in Burkina Faso or Mali. Salafist-jihadi groups could also resume attacks foreign targets in coastal West Africa, continuing a long-running effort to remove Western influence from the region.